The Confessions of Vladimir Putin
The pandemic, the opposition, the oligarchy
President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual state-of-the-nation address last week in Moscow. Most of it was boring, and the remainder was selfish. Lengthy platitudes and indignant expostulations are the natural modes of expression for the leader of an aging regime. But the address deserves more analysis to than it has received. Attention to what the Russian president said, and what he did not say, can give us a sense of what is wrong with the Putin regime, and what might come next. This is the first of three brief essays.
1. Pandemic. It is bad news for his regime that President Putin spent more time on this issue than on any other. Putin is a skillful teller or tales, one of the best in the business, but his lies work best when they are quick, audacious, and totally unconnected to reality. The disease, and Russia’s poor handling of it, pinned Putin down to a much more conventional and meandering mendacity.
His boast that “many leading countries” “were unable to deal with the challenges of the pandemic as effectively as we did in Russia” is not very persuasive. Russia systematically issued false information about the number of covid deaths, which are in fact among the highest in the world. Putin inadvertently referred to this when he spoke of “sad and disappointing numbers,” in a reference to higher-than-expected mortality last year. It is precisely the unusually high number of excess deaths that indicates that Russia’s official figures about covid deaths cannot be correct.
Last year, Russia chose to spread propaganda to the effect that covid was an American biological weapon, and sought generally to weaken public health in western democracies. This year, the Russian government has undertaken a foreign policy of vaccine diplomacy without having vaccinated its own population. The vaccine diplomacy is not going especially well; Slovakia charged this month that it did not get what it paid for.
None of the vaccine foreign policy was mentioned in the address, which is also a bad sign for Putin. He does not really have domestic policy, nor he capacity to generate it; the way the regime works is to generate foreign policy to distract or excite a domestic audience. Russia might not be good, but it is great: that is general idea. His line to domestic audiences for quite some time was that Russia was able to help the world survive covid; now he has been pushed back to the much more conventional claim that everything at home was harder than expected.
As Putin was giving his speech, the health of one particular Russian was a concern of people around the world. The most striking thing the Russian government did in health policy last year was to poison its leading opponent, Alexei Navalny. The physician who treated Navalny died suddenly. Navalny himself recovered in Germany, and then chose to return to Russia. He was arrested at the airport and quickly sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison on a demonstratively bogus charge: that he failed to meet conditions of a previous sentence while he was lying unconscious, poisoned by the state that sentenced him. As Putin was speaking, Navalny was undertaking a hunger strike in prison to protest a lack of access to medical care. Putin never mentions Navalny, which smacks of something like fear.
The reason that Navalny has a following in Russia is that Russia has a problem with oligarchy, and Navalny is a public figure who is willing to talk to about it. As Navalny returned from Germany to Russia, he released an exposé about a disgustingly opulent palace, which he claimed was owned by Putin. After a series of confusing denials, the Putin regime settled on its laughable official position: the palace existed, and was owned by an oligarch, not by Putin, instead by a childhood friend of his, his former judo partner.
The theme of President Putin’s remarks about the pandemic was the hard work of people from all walks of life. None of these people was apparently important enough to mention by name.
What his theme of “people’s solidarity” elides is that wealth in Russia is grotesquely maldistributed, and that his regime makes this state of affairs legal and inevitable. The Putin regime is the victory of one clan of oligarchs over other clans, and the merger of the victorious clan with the state. His claim that “we are making all major decisions concerning the economy through a dialogue with the business community” thus has a comical resonance. Much of the policy work that Russia does is farmed out to friendly oligarchs. But to be a normal member of the “business community” in Russia is quite difficult, since no one except friendly oligarchs know how the law will work in advance.
Much of Putin’s address amounted to encouragement to Russians to do their jobs better. In this in many other ways (chiefly its alternation between the boring and the weird) it was redolent of the Brezhnev era. Nothing very different is being promised; figures are mentioned and targets are set; everyone should just work harder and be less corrupt, and be satisfied with the rhetorical crumbs that fall from the leader’s table. The basic problem in Russia is the weakness of the rule of the law, and that that cannot be solved in oligarchical conditions. Oligarchy is the area that Putin cannot touch, because it is the essence of his rule.
4. Amorality. In these annual addresses President Putin used to make a habit of citing Russian fascists, as I and others pointed put. This practice seems to have been brought to an end. This year we are left with the vague idea that Western countries have lost their “spiritual and moral values,” whereas Russia has held to them. Generally this means that people in the West are gay and Russians are straight, but even this was not specified this time around.
The issue in Putin’s address was the quantity of Russians rather than their qualities. His major topic was that there are not enough Russians in the world, which is of course a sexual anxiety, if not directly expressed. Such worries about demography are the common currency of the far right; there is nothing at all Russian about them. The fact that demography has now been constitutionalized, as Putin mentioned, just shows that the far right is in power in Russia.
The speech ended with vague threats against foreign powers who do not understand Russian values. But it is hard to understand Russian values when the country’s problem of today, covid, is misrepresented, and its problem of the century, oligarchy, is unmentioned. It is harder still when the country’s president says only that Russia is easily angered by various unnamed things and reacts asymmetrically.
Putin mentioned red lines but also said that their location is unknown. That is just not what it means to draw a red line. To draw a red line means, well, drawing it, not just waving the uncapped red marker in the air. Unpredictable ire is not a value, and certainly not a moral one. It is just a confession that the state does not function according to laws or principles; in other words, that it is a tyranny.
5. Ukraine. In the last decades of the Soviet Union, demography was also a vexing issue. Russian leaders of the USSR were troubled that Russians might become a minority in what they thought of, at some level, as their country. Their concerns were chiefly about the southern republics of the USSR and their Muslim populations. In the last Soviet census, in 1989, Russians were a bare majority of the population. In this situation, the existence of Ukrainian and Belarusian Soviet republics gave some comfort. If Ukrainians and Belarusians were added together with Russians, then a clear “Slavic” majority could at least be counted. Accordingly, Ukrainian and Belarusian communists were entrusted with important positions, alongside Russians, in governing the Soviet Union’s outer reaches.
In Soviet times, Ukrainians were portrayed as the second nation of the USSR, in a special if subordinate relationship to Russians. But the existence of a Ukrainian nation was not in doubt. Since 1991, and especially under Putin, this has changed. Russian propaganda, especially since the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine, has taken a much more heavily colonial line, claiming that Ukrainians cannot run their own state, or should perhaps not be seen as a people at all.
By annexing Ukrainian territory in that war, Putin bound his country’s future and his own to a story or stories about Ukraine: that it must fail, or did not exist, or was governed by nationalists, or maybe fascists, or was populated by Russians who wanted unity with Russia. Most of this is contradictory and none of it is true. Ukraine had a Jewish prime minister for years and now has a Jewish president; it will be a long time before any other country (besides Israel!) manages that.
But some of this Putin might actually believe. He does seem to think that there is a strong pro-Russia party in Ukraine, which is just not the case. By invading Ukraine, Putin chose to end the friendly feelings many Ukrainians felt towards Russia. But it seems that this miscalculation can lead to further mistakes.
In 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Putin already had a friendly ruler, Viktor Yanukovych, who was willing to do almost everything Moscow wanted. But Russia pushed Yanukovych to do something that was vastly unpopular in Ukraine, namely break ties with the European Union. Russian pressure momentarily changed Ukraine’s foreign policy, at the price of huge popular protest. When Yanukovych’s government killed protestors, he fled to country, to Russia naturally. Today Russia has a president in Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, who won an election while promising to seek peace with Russia. But Russia has made the same mistake again. It demands things of Ukrainian leaders that they simply cannot do in a democracy. Russian leaders who believe neither in democracy nor in Ukraine cannot grasp this. Putin has made Zelensky’s promises of peace seem impossible by massing forces at the Ukrainian border. Now Zelensky has no choice but to present himself as a wartime president and seek aid from the West.
6. Overreach. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 seemed to many Russians like a triumph at the time. Russia had pushed Yanukovych to use violence against protestors, and then he had fled. Ukraine was in a confusing interregnum, and the Ukrainian armed forces did not at first react to the Russian invasion. Western governments also urged Ukraine not to fight. Russia overran and claimed the Crimean Peninsula, the part of southern Ukraine that juts out into the Black Sea, and managed to destabilize two further Ukrainian regions in the extreme southeast.
This has been a disaster for Ukraine: thousands killed, two million internal refugees, a disrupted economy. But it has been something of a Pyrrhic victory for Russia. It satisfied a short-term political goal by giving Russians a sense of triumph. But just a bit of additional empire has been difficult and costly for Russia to manage.
The boundaries of Russia, Ukraine, and other post-Soviet states are inheritances from the Soviet Union. The Crimean peninsula is part of Ukraine today because it was part of Soviet Ukraine before 1991. The area was the historical homeland of the Crimean Tatars, who were ethnically cleansed by Soviet power in 1944. In 1954 Crimea was transferred from one part of the Soviet Union to another, from the Russian to the Ukrainian Soviet republic. This move was made with much fanfare, as a sign of the eternal friendship between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples. In fact, Crimea was transferred to Ukraine for practical reasons. From the point of view of Russia, Crimea is an island. There is no land connection between Russia and Crimea. From the point of view of Ukraine, Crimea is a peninsula. Soviet leaders understood that it would be far easier to supply Crimea with electricity and water from Ukraine, and scored some propaganda points along the way.
Because of its strategic position in the Black Sea, Crimea was an important site for bases of the Russian imperial navy and then the Soviet navy. Russia inherited those bases after the end of the Soviet Union. In treaty negotiations with Ukraine in 2010, it was able to preserve the basing rights for the next twenty-five years. Four years later Russia invaded Ukraine anyway. Now that contemporary Russia has conquered Crimea for itself, its rule is logistically problematic. It had the bases before it invaded, and it still has the bases, but it cannot really govern the region. It has been unable to supply the inhabitants of Crimea with fresh water.
That seems like a clear sign of imperial overstretch. But it is only the beginning of the geopolitical difficulty.
7. Repetition. President Putin gave his speech at a time when the Russian army was again encamped at the Ukrainian border. He said nothing about this. One can only guess at the purposes of this buildup, but a reasonable hypothesis would seem to be the lack of any better ideas. Elections to the Russian parliament are coming in September, and in the absence of any other plausible source of popularity, why not threaten Ukraine a second time?
Heraclitus said that you cannot step into the same river twice. Vasily Grossman said that you cannot enter the same Gulag transport twice. You also cannot fight the same war twice. Ask the Americans about Iraq.
It turned out that Russians were not as moved this time around by anti-Ukrainian propaganda. In 2014 Russia used a false story of a murdered boy to great effect; this time around a similar story (equally false) drew far less attention. Meanwhile, the problem with access to fresh water in Crimea (discussed in the last post) is very real: given basic facts of geography, which no amount of disinformation can alter, Russia would have to invade more of southern Ukraine to solve it.
This cannot be ruled out, but it would certainly come with higher costs than last time. Despite Putin’s militaristic bravado, his system is almost as sensitive to military casualties as a western democracy. During the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, it quickly became impossible to report on Russia’s war dead, although courageous journalists did their best.
Domestic policy in the Putin regime is essentially impossible, thanks to oligarchy. Foreign policy must substitute for domestic policy. Russian foreign policy is chiefly disinformation. The idea is to make citizens of other countries, especially democracies, believe that their own systems do not work. What Russia actually does abroad should is an element of this disinformation, a sort of prop. In addition to cyberwar, familiar in the United States, this includes taking military action in countries that cannot fight back. But few options of that sort remain. Russian military actions in Ukraine and then Syria were certainly impressive in their execution, but what did they bring Russians over the long term?
And it is the long term that now concerns Putin. He has cleared the way to be president until 2036. Insofar as his address was about any period in time, it was less the 2020s than the 2030s. In other words, the speech was a prediction, or really an embodiment, of an age of stagnation.
Another problem with repetition is that it calls attention to what happened the first time. It now appears that Russia was concerned enough about Ukrainian resistance in 2014 to take action on the territory of NATO members. At the time, Ukraine was trying to buy arms from a Bulgarian arms dealer. In what seems not to have been a coincidence, he was poisoned, and a cache of arms was destroyed in the Czech Republic. The people who died were Czechs. Now a Czech investigation has established a chain of events that leads back to Russian security officers. This serves to remind people that Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine had been bloody, and bloodier than we knew. The discovery had special resonance in the United Kingdom, since the Russian officers suspected of the attack in the Czech Republic in 2014 were the same two men accused of carrying out poisonings on British territory in 2018.
8. Geopolitics. Perhaps more worrying for Putin is that Russian propaganda about Ukraine is working less well this time in Europe and America. Although the reaction to the Russian military buildup has been mild, few people take seriously this time around Russian tales about Ukrainian crimes, failed states, nationalists, and the like. When Russian invaded Ukraine in 2014, its chief success was precisely in propaganda. The simple fact of one country invading another was shrouded by a very intelligent internet campaign, with topics and memes aimed at audience vulnerabilities. For whatever reason, this did not work very well the second time around. Russia called a hybrid war in April 2021, but nobody came.
Meanwhile, the invasion of Ukraine has pushed Russia closer to China. This is a geopolitical problem for Russia, and it is of Putin’s making. Russia’s geopolitical position depends upon the ability to navigate between the West and China. Putin had his reasons for not mentioning China by name in his address: under his rule, relations with China have grown too close for comfort. In foreign policy, Russia has the problems that it creates and can usually control, namely in its relations with the West. It also has a deep vulnerability that it cannot control, which is its long border with a greater power, China. Tilting too far down the slope towards China is unwise. At some point you cannot climb back out.
Whereas the preferred Russian propaganda move is to speak about nefarious American or European plans to seize Russia’s resources, China is the real threat to Russia’s resources, and in the long run to Russia’s sovereignty. China deals with Russia much the way it deals with Africa: supporting a leader it favors, amused by a corruption it can manage with its vast economic power.
Invading Ukraine made it very hard for Russia, or at least Russia under Putin, to move away from China and back towards the West. Beijing is aware of this and delighted by it. Everything that Putin has done since invading Ukraine has been a distraction from, and an exacerbation of, Russia’s real geopolitical problem.
9. Narcissism. Whereas most of the address was boring, the last part was, to put it gently, self-absorbed.
Like tyrants everywhere and at all times, Putin is concerned with the reality that he will not live and rule forever, and is seeking to blame others for the verdicts of the laws of nature and politics. In a long speech, the only people Putin actually mentioned by name are his fellow dictators. His appeals for sympathy were all about them, as though they are the only people who matter. The only place where Putin was truly emotional was towards the end, where he discussed the prospect that dictators somewhere in the world might actually lose their power. This should be troubling for Russians, because it indicates that Putin identifies with foreign dictators more strongly than he does with them, and that sees the whole world through the prism of his own predicament.
It makes matters worse that Putin expresses his fellow feeling for dictators by making things up. Last year Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka lost an election and faced months of protests. Such a scenario for Putin is a nightmare, given his own falling popularity; he issued the wild assertion that what really happened in Belarus was a “coup d’état.” This is the same, and by now boring, claim that Putin has made about all popular protests. They all are sponsored by the West, and they are all directed against legitimate rulers, by which he means dictators.
When Putin inveighed against “political assassinations” towards the end of his address, this was a rhetorical tactic: boldly accuse the other side of something outrageous that you just invented, change the subject thereby, make yourself a victim. But this is all wearing very thin. Today, when it is obvious that political assassination is a tool used by Putin rather than against him, it seems like displacement.
On a simple tactical level, it was a mistake to speak of political assassinations, since it draws attention to a hallmark of the Putin regime. It was on Putin’s watch, after all, that leading opposition activist Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in 2015 near the Kremlin. And it was his security service that tried to murder Russia’s leading opposition politician today, Alexei Navalny.
Political assassinations do take place in Russia, because they are Russian policy. But they serve no Russian purpose. They only serve the purposes of the man who presents himself as the victim. What Russia needs is a reasonable expectation of a peaceful transition of power, ideally by a democratic election. By prolonging his own rule indefinitely, Putin makes a violent outcome more likely. But this has nothing to do with foreign powers. Narcissus perished all on his own.
10. Catastrophism. The world is facing a present disaster, a pandemic. It is facing a coming catastrophe, climate change. The note on which Putin closed was essentially to threaten the world with yet another, so to speak redundant, crisis.
A greatest achievement of Russia, we are to understand, is the devotion of Russian financial and scientific resources to the renewal of the nuclear arms race. In Putin’s own words, “standing on combat duty are the latest Avangard hypersonic intercontinental missile systems and the Peresvet combat laser systems, and the first regiment armed with Sarmat super-heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles is scheduled to go on combat duty in late 2022.” The United States is also deploying new nuclear weapons, and nuclear arms control is a very good idea. But it is strange to speak of such weapons as a source of national pride.
Russian nuclear weapons could incinerate the United States, just as American nuclear weapons could incinerate Russia. This has been true for decades. The claims that new Russian weapons upset the nuclear balance, although they are not true, make nuclear war more rather than less likely, because they make a first strike by both sides just a bit more likely. Leaders should not choose words that make the end of civilization more likely, especially if the motive is personal and petty. Shortly before the last presidential election, Mr. Putin stated that the buildup was about getting attention: “Nobody wanted to talk to us.” But it seems a risky and weird gambit for attention. As Russians must understand, these weapons can never be used without Russia being destroyed.
Of course, this would not matter to a tyrant who does not distinguish between the end of Russia and the end of his rule.